Finding space an audience /

15 years ago we started building the International Space Station.

Over 13 continuous years of human occupation it has had more than 200 people aboard, nearly 90 residents as well as numerous ants, spiders, worms, jellyfish and rodents. It has witnessed over 82,000 sunrises and sunsets and has documented everything from volcanic eruptions and super storms to 9/11.

There is a strong argued to say that it is our most impressive engineering feat ever. However, most people can probably only name one person to have been aboard, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.

Why is this?

To some people, Space is the antithesis of interesting; the technology is incomprehensibly irrelevant and the money spent on it vulgar when you look at the extreme poverty millions of people continue to live in across the world today.

Whilst governments look to encourage private industry to invest as they cut their own spending, what has been missing until recently is what every good story needs – great characters.

  The first media-shifting character needs little introduction

Commander Chris Hadfield.

Bowie, blogs and Instagram, need I say any more? The human side of astonautical life in space was a joy to follow as Hadfield shared his personal experience of living in space with the world through Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.

For nearly 6 months and with the help of his son back in Canada, Hadfield made space interesting to the public, mostly through social media. The “most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth” according to Forbes, his frequent updates received press attention unlike any other astronaut had received since the Apollo missions and by the time he released the first music video ever shot in space he was well on his way to becoming a household name.

Every space agency will hopefully be following suit in encouraging more astronauts to connect with the social media audience.

The second is Felix Baurmanger, the man who fell from space[/was pushed by Red Bull].

Felix’s achievement was truly amazing and the bravery he showed was extraordinary. His hunger to pioneer is inspirational and his determination to see the project through was best encapsulated in this documentary. This is what should be shown in secondary schools to inspire science and exploration.

The third character is of course, NASA’s tweeting Mars explorer, Curiosity.

The 6-wheeled Martian rover has lived up to its name and its daily updates of life on the red planet has been a social networking phenomenon. Curiosity has allowed NASA to reach a new generation of space geeks on a much more personal level.

As we continue to let our robotic minions do the dirty work over the next decade or so, sharing what is discovered and the robot’s stories is key to getting the public to understand what they’re funding – and if this is coming from a robot that can share both mind boggling red vistas and selfies alike, well that’s all the more interesting.

When the time comes for humans to explore the void beyond Earth’s orbit once again, we will look to the characters we can empathise with, aspire to become and wish for their safe return.

NASA, ESA and Russia, along with China and India and whoever else joins in the fun will need to make sure the public feels part of astronaut’s experiences and get to know the people in the suits before, during and after the missions until their names are etched into the public consciousness along with Gagarin, Aldrin, Armstrong, Columbus and Cook before them.

Humanity’s Last Hope /

Our lives are currently in the hands of amateurs.

Or at least that’s one way to look at it. With the US Shutdown causing NASA to close its doors (at least publicly – a skeleton staff of 600 remain to look after the ISS and similar projects) our skies are no longer being watched by the professionals boasting satellites in their armoury.

Instead, our impending (statistically improbable) doom brought about by giant rocks meandering through space must be averted by Peter and Mary, aged 62, who are in a word, amateurs.

Amateur astronomers such as Peter and Mary (perhaps who are now some of the most important fictional astronomers in non-existence) are suddenly crucial to the survival of the human race.

Without people like Peter and Mary, and the normally keen eyes of NASA and their robot sensors, spending their time scanning our skies, we don’t know how close we all are to being obliterated by a rogue planetoid causing mischief amongst the inner planets. 

Reality check. Amateur astronomers are unlikely to have the gear needed to scan the skies for disaster movie fodder, however our astronomers and scientists are suddenly playing a crucial role in maintaining systems, satellite tracking and even weather reporting. They are proving how crucial the private sector and educational institutes are in this sector when a government renders itself so impotent to defend their own people (yes I’m well aware that Bruce Willis could be hired by the Space X to blow the shit out of a mighty meteor, especially since his selling out to do Sky ads).

Whilst I admit the chance of all humanity being rendered a mere fraction of a bug-splatter on the giant windscreen of time, coincidentally occurring during a US Gov shutdown is unlikely, it’s important to address how much we (and the US people who actually fund the organisation) depend on NASA and what we  before it [most likely] becomes a research body as opposed to its all action 1960s incarnation. 

As a human race have learnt an incredible, almost incomprehensible amount about ourselves and our planet thanks to the hard work of the square glassed faces at NASA. Whilst noisy young upstarts will slowly pick up the grunt work where the behemoth left off with the Shuttle program, it’s clear there is no national or international space program or even private sector equivalent to carry on it’s incredible legacy. 

Is this a problem you may ask? Do we really need all this space exploration and funding? Whilst we probably won’t see heavenly annihilation in our lifetimes, at least smaller strikes are perhaps more likely than we thought accordingly to latest meteor research and these are the kinds of things we can learn more about, both through government agencies and privately funded research.

In short, we need to make sure our skies are monitored, if only to keep our communications satellites free from space debris and our astronauts safe from political squabbling to make sure they can boldly keep on spinning round our little blue planet at 7.71 km/s.

A new Space Race /

We are at the dawn of a new, privatised, Space Age.

Companies such as Space X and Virgin Galactic have the potential to create a huge boom in public interest in space again and for the first time, make space accessible to the general public (if you have $250k lying around that is). 

Looking at how positively people have reacted to the Mars Rover missions (and the Rovers themselves) as NASA has become ever more personable and media friendly through social media, space is becoming interesting again and piquing people’s Curiosity once more.

Future technologies such as the James Webb Telescope, due to be launched in 2018, will partner nicely with the growing general interest in finding exoplanets like Earth and the public will look at the space industry in a new light as new technologies open our eyes to fascinating aspects of space we haven’t seen since Hubble first went online.

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The prominence of Sci-Fi and ‘geek’ culture has also helped generate more interest in new technologies as it has become part of everyday rather than fantasy. The public could start asking what happened to ‘the World of Tomorrow’ and how can we get it back on track. With the help of privatised companies and world-wide crowd sourced based funding for projects through KickStarter and Indiegogo we could see the public not just take an interest in a new Space Age, but they could fund it and help shape the future of human space exploration by doing so.

The final step is getting kids interested in science and space. A whole generation of children grew up in the 60s thinking space was an attainable place to reach within their lifetime. Instead it may be their grandchildren or even great-grandchildren who will be the first civilians realistically able to venture into space. With better science and technology schooling desperately needed in the UK, the Space industry is a chance to reinvigorate both skills and aspirations for young people and help grow an industry already worth £20bn (contributing £9bn to the UK economy).

The fact that the UK government is willing to inject £200m at a time of major cuts shows that it see the sector as a place for future growth, and with private funding the final frontier may be finally explored by the everyman.